- Germany as a Culture of Remembrance: Promises and Limits of Writing History
In this stimulating collection of essays, Alon Confino explores two related themes, the German idea of Heimat and the history of memory. In his earlier research, Confino has argued that after the unification of Germany in 1871 any notion of a larger national whole had to be compatible with intense regional diversity. The idea of Heimat made this synthesis between the local and the national possible because it allowed Germans to imagine "nationhood as a form of localness"(p.26). Heimat history claimed the authority of ancient pasts. Yet these were often recently invented traditions. Between 1890 and 1918, a series of new regional Heimat associations, museums and publications engaged in the active memory work that demonstrated the distinctiveness of the regional past, yet at the same time affirmed the "oneness of the whole, Germany." (p. 38).
These arguments will be familiar to anyone who has read Confino's earlier, award-winning monograph, The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Württemberg, Imperial Germany, and National Memory, 1871–1918, published in 1997. In the collection of essays under review here, Confino carries the Heimat story forward to the present. The remarkable longevity of the Heimat idea in Germany has been made possible, Confino suggests, by an equally remarkable compatibility with the requirements of radically different political environments. Under the Nazis, Heimat became the argument for a vicious, racist Volksgemeinschaft. Yet, after 1945, the Heimat idea allowed Germans, especially expellees from the German East, to present themselves as innocent victims of Hitler's War. Heimat even found an unlikely home in the post-1945 communist GDR. Despite its Marxist rhetoric of class-struggle, which could only describe Heimat as a reactionary idea, the East German regime had to acknowledge Heimat's "persistent hold on the German imagination" (p. 93). In a fascinating exploration of Heimat images in posters and postcards produced in the GDR between 1945 and 1970, Confino shows that "whatever German communists said or did about the Heimat idea, they still imagined localness and nationhood in its idiom"(p. 98). Yet there were limits to the compatibility between Heimat and communism, imposed as much [End Page 247] by what Confino terms the "symbolic manual" of the Heimat idea as by the ideology of German Marxism.
Confino's discussion of Edgar Reitz's monumental film, Heimat is one of the most compelling essays in this first section of the book. Reitz has insisted that professional, academic history cannot tell the story of Heimat, and that Hollywood has denied Germans the images they need to appropriate their own past. Reitz believes that his film provides these images. Confino points out, however, that Reitz is well aware that the camera is unreliable , that it does not simply reproduce reality, and that all filmic images (including his own) are representations and interpretations. It is therefore hard to see what could possibly privilege Reitz's Heimat as a representation of the German past.
In the second section of this thought-provoking book, Confino's focus shifts to the history of memory. He warns that this extremely important and still relatively new area of research is in danger of producing ever-diminishing returns because the great majority of "memory studies" ask generic questions about the same types of obvious "sites of memory", such as museums, monuments and public commemorations. We now know a great deal about how different German pasts have been represented but we understand very little about how these images of the past shaped social relations. To understand how memory has made a difference in the lives of ordinary Germans, we need to explore "the private spheres of family, friends, workplace, and neighborhood" (p.177) as well as the more familiar terrain of public and official ceremonies and monuments. To understand why Germans have embraced certain versions of the German past, yet rejected others, we need to examine the gaps that often emerge between officially-approved...